Memphis-style ribs - Creation Studios

World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

Creation Studios

Spring in Memphis means blues, beer and one of the biggest, most important and arguably best barbecue contests in the world.

Part of the bigger month-long Memphis In May Festival, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is often called the “super bowl of swine.” Every year, it brings together thousands of smoke masters, amateur and professional, looking for fame, glory and just a plain old good time with friends and family. Located in Tom Lee Park, at the bottom of Beale Street, the riverfront setting is transformed overnight from green-space into a small continent of tents of all shapes, sizes and decorated to the extreme.

Barbecue teams compete in a wide variety of categories, including whole hog, rib, shoulder, but, hot wings, beef, poultry, seafood (not joking), sauce and an exotic category. They can cook with either charcoal or wood, but absolutely no propane, liquid, gas or electricity. The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is strictly about the subtle science (and art) of smoke. That smell also permeates all of Downtown Memphis. While teams are gunning for over $100,000 in prizes, everyone knows it’s really about bragging rights and name recognition. Today, more than 250 teams from over 20 states and a few countries fire up their smokers in front of approximately 100,000 people.

And though it can look like a free-for-all of sweet smoke and reverie, this is a competition not a food festival for the public. The contest does offer visitors a way to get your hands on some barbecue. The Kingsford Tour of Champions gives ordinary barbecue fans a chance to judge the pork shoulder contest for a small fee. Also, you can grab Memphis barbecue from any of the official vendors that sell food to visitors. It’s important to remember though that as good as everything looks and smells the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is a serious competition. So serious that local health regulations prohibit teams from serving the public.Yes, the focus is on the pig, but over the years the contest has spread beyond the smoking to include, informally, the massive tent systems teams set up.

Memphis in May Barbecue Cooking Contest - Marvin Garcia
It's all about the swine during the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

Many teams hire building managers that outsource to other companies that then design, build and set up these large structures. Almost all of the tents include a fun, and sometimes irreverent, theme, everything from Tunisian nights to the Muppets-inspired Pigs In Space to the perennial Redneck Barbecue Express.

Of course with all the downtime of watching slowly smoked pig it’s really no surprise that a few other, more entertaining competitions pop up. One that should not be missed is the Ms. Piggy Contest. A variety contest featuring teams wearing elaborate, if not completely ridiculous, costumes belting out reimagined pop songs. Think American Idol but in drag, and with stubble, and at least one team member dressed like Ms. Piggy herself.

But don’t worry, there are ways to get your hands on some ‘cue. A number of official vendors will sell food to visitors, and the Kingsford Tour of Champions gives barbecue fans a chance to judge the pork shoulder contest for the small fee of $12. But remember, you’re in Memphis. A blind man throwing a baseball could hit a barbecue shack in this town.Hometown Heroes

If you do leave Tom Lee Park and venture into the city, you’ll have no problem finding any number of local smoke houses to satisfy your appetite. There are over 100+ barbecue restaurants, shacks and joints in the Memphis area. Here are just a couple to wet your pallet: 

Located in midtown, Central BBQ is often voted one of the best joints in town. Former participants in World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, these guys know what they’re doing. They also make their own chips. 

The Cozy Corner is just that, a bare-bones shack at the north end of Downtown Memphis. Known for their BBQ Bologne (a Memphis original) and Cornish Gamehen, you’ll often find nurses, doctors and policeman huddled around tables, which is always a good sign. 

Two others worth considering are the legendary Rendezvous just a few feet away from AutoZone Park and The Peabody Hotel, known for out-of-this-world ribs, and the Memphis Bar-B-Q Shop, where you can dine on barbecue spaghetti just a few blocks away from Overton Square. 

Mouthwatering Memphis Barbecue
Why is Memphis Barbecue the Best in the World?